Call Me Madam
Upstairs At The Gatehouse, Highgate, Friday 14 August 2009
review by Emma Shane
In the film the audience meet the Duke and Duchess, by seeing Sally being presented to them, but that doesn’t happen in the stage show, the only member of the royal family we meet is Princess Maria. In some ways this is a shame, because it means the song The International Rag which was interpolated into the film is not included. Kate Nelson, who plays Princess Maria initially looks quite awkward opening the Festival, and does not appear to move with the grace one might expect for a princess (especially when the film version featured ballet-trained Vera Ellen), all the more surprising given that as a child she attended a dancing boarding school. Her first meeting with Kenneth also seems awkward, although that could be intentional on the part of the actors. Presently they launch into It’s A Lovely Day Today, and gradually as the number progresses something changes. At first while I was impressed by Chris Love’s dancing. He is clearly a fine choice for the role immortalised by Donald O’Connor, I was less sure of Kate Nelson because of her strange lack of grace. However, Drew McOnie structures this number so that it takes on an Astaire-Rogers quality. the kind of ‘chase’ so often used in their dance routines, where the girl is initially disinterested, but gradually joins in, to the point that they basically make love with their dancing (even though it always remains perfectly chaste). Somehow trying to take on this Ginger Rogers style seems to give Kate Nelson to lift she needs to bring the character of Princess Maria to life. Perhaps too the legacy of her initial schooling finally kicked in. The overall result is that the pair of them make this number truly their own, and prove just how terrific seeing something live on stage is, rather than an image on the cinema screen.
Having got one romance off to a start, it’s time for the plot’s other romance to advance. Cosmo (who has now been made Prime Minister) turns up at the Embassy to see Sally, she is off-stage, changing her dress (she actually calls that out), when she appears Cosmo tell her he has been thinking things through The Best Thing For You Would Be Me. This song is handled well, and the pair manage at last to more or less make it their own, and at least for the duration of the show make us forget about Merman and Sanders in the film.
Of course this being a traditional book musical, there has to be a Leads Apart ending of Act 1, things move rapidly, with Sally telling Cosmo she has arranged an American loan to go through, he is horrified, particularly as he thought she understood that wasn’t his plan. She is also quite sorry she didn’t realise that he was so serious about it. (She had been misled into thinking it was only because he wasn’t in charge of the government).
Act 2 opens with a reprise of Lichtenberg, the chorus are beginning to be more graceful, or maybe I am getting used to them. The US Senators have arrived to put the loan through, and Sally welcomes them by throwing a party. She sets the tone with Something To Dance About. Once again Beverley does a perfectly respectable job with the song, yet I can’t help thinking there is something ever-so-slightly lacking. I’m just too used to the Kim Criswell recording, and of course Ethel Merman’s original recording.
We are on much firmer ground with Kenneth and Princess Maria, who have been forbidden to speak to one another, then they realise they can both speak to Sally, and so they get her to act as a go between, initially she is startled, but soon relishes being a facilitator. However, this is right in the middle of a party, and she soon exits to see to something or other. Then Kenneth has a brainwave, they have promised not to talk to one another, but they didn’t promise not to sing, Once Upon A Time Today. Although the romance between Kenneth and the Princess was in the film, it is portrayed in the stage version completely differently to the way it was in the film. And on reflection I actually find the stage version more convincing, The film version got a bit far fetched with Donald O’Connor doing a ridiculous drunk scene. Although he acted it perfectly well, I find I much prefer the script of the stage show.
Meanwhile Cheque-book diplomacy is running into a few problems of its own, mainly in not understanding Cosmo. The Senators have never met anyone like him, and the only way they know to express their admiration (at his turning down the loan) is to offer an even bigger loan, which of course he turns down. Pemberton Maxwell is rather less admiring. Sally helpfully proposes holding an election to ask the people of Lichtenberg what they actually want. This shocks both Pemberton and Comso, there has not been an election for many many years, could democracy work? Sally points out that it works in her country. I’m not quite sure if she did this with the song They Like Ike. The song is meant to be in the stage show at this point, but strangely I remember nothing about it. It’s possible that being a little heard song, it may have been included and I just didn’t notice it. Even some of the show’s big standards were not always particularly memorable in this production.
Sometime later Kenneth thoroughly out of sorts, he confides in Sally (who for all her brassiness is a warm hearted person, almost motherly to Kenneth) I Hear Sings And There’s No One There. This is one of the best known songs in the entire show. It was Irving Berlin’s Eleven O’clock number, and one of his finest counterpoints. So successful was this song it prompted him to go and write An Old Fashioned Wedding for the 1966 revival of Annie Get Your Gun. It’s a shame that tonight’s performers while satisfactory, ultimately fail to make the most of it. They do not murder the song, or harm it in any way. But there is a certain energy lacking in the production and it becomes most apparent with this number. There is nothing particularly wrong with it, but even with the aid of radio mikes it just doesn’t quite have the impact I feel it should have. I’m sure that Beverly and Chris do their best with it, but Merman and O’Conner in the film, or for that matter Merman with Russell Nyph on the Ed Sullivan Show are just too hard an act to follow, especially when one also has the legacy of Kim Criswell and Thomas Hampson’s EMI Classics’s recording of Berlin’s other great Merman Counterpoint An Old Fashioned Wedding to contend with. In fact Merman recorded all three of Berlin’s best known Counterpoint songs, not only did she record the two that were actually written for her. She (and Dan Dailey) also had a shot at Berlin’s one other famous counterpoint Play A Simple Melody (in the film There’s No Business Like Showbusiness).
Kenneth isn’t the only one whose love life is getting him into hot water. Sally, clearly smitten with Cosmo, is trying to canvass for him in the election. Pemberton Maxwell finds out that, among other things Sally has had Lichtenberg cheese smuggled into the country in diplomatic bags, and is distributing it whenever Cosmo goes to make a speech, thus all the people go to hear his speeches. As Pemberton succinctly puts it “I noticed those bags had a funny smell, but I thought it was just her policies”. He reports her, and the result is Sally is recalled to Washington, for having been meddling in local politics, she is disappointed, especially when she has to break the news to Cosmo, that she can’t even stay in the country. She tells him that he’s simply got to win the election now. They reprise The Best Thing For You Would Be Me, bitterly. That is well sung.
On a happier note, Princess Maria turns up (via the secret passage) to say goodbye to Kenneth. However, Kenneth has been studying Lichtenberg, and with his family background in Hydroelectrics, he has decided to stay and see if he can help Lichtenberg exploit it’s own natural resources (by building a power plant). He is on the point of proposing to Maria, when Sally cuts in “You can’t propose to her, she’s a Princess”, there is a long pause, during which Kenneth looks totally crestfallen; Until Sally explains “She has to propose to you”. Whereupon Maria finally plucks up the courage to do so. It’s A Lovely Day Today (Reprise). This scene, which is not part of the film (the film resolves this plot and brings Kenneth and Maria together rather differently) is very well acted by all three. Beverley at this point at least seems to get into Sally’s warm-hearted charismatic nature. Chris Love carries the emotional meat of the scene, and Kate Nelson also comes across very well, as a girl so used to trying to turn potential suitors down that even when she wants a man she finds it hard to tell him.
Arriving back in the States, Sally promptly throws a party. Mrs Sally Adams (Reprise). The chorus girls perform this with great enthusiasm. And soon we are into the final scene, when Cosmo, now having won the election, turns up, to present Sally with a damehood from his grateful country. Sally responds by declaring her intention make a few visits to Lichtenberg as a private citizen, and then cuddling Cosmo, adds “perhaps just one long visit”, occasionally popping back to Washington to throw a few parties. Thus the show comes to an end, and all that is left is for the band to play the finale, and everyone to take their bows.
Overall a good fun night out. And very cost-effective entertainment. Fringe theatre very often does give excellent value for money. On this occasion we had a fifteen strong cast, and a five strong orchestra; that’s quite a large number for fringe. As the orchestra had several alternate musicians, it is not clear exactly who was playing, out of: Alex Weatherhill or Tom Fowkes, Henry Spencer or Andy Watts or Alex Fletcher or David Stoneham or James Williams, Richard Cooper or Hannah Lawrence, Vicky Cowles or Andrew Loveridge, and, Greg Rawson. However whichever they were they all played satisfactorily. Although the actors were radio miked (which I found disappointing) the miking was done very well so it was not obtrusive. Thom Southerland’s direction of the show seems to have been generally good
The ensemble of Flora Dawson, Meg Gallagher, Grace Harrington, Samir Khan, Katie Pritchard, Ema Shenton, Tasha Taylor Johnson and Khiley Williams generally performed well, although some of them looked a bit awkward, that could have been as much due to the choreography, or even to the fact that being fringe theatre the audience is very close, as anything else; for generally their dancing seemed pretty accomplished, some were better than others, and three of them had been trained at Arts Ed, which after all usually turns out high standard dancers among it’s actors. Chris Neuman and Rob Wilson have two nice little comedy parts as American senators, and Matthew Trevannion makes a fair convincing job of the anything but fair Pemberton Maxwell.
Given the perfection of the film, our four principals are faced with an impossible task of trying to match that. The results are variable.
As Princess Maria Kate Nelson has the difficult task of trying to match Vera Ellen’s dancing and Carol Richards’s singing. Carol Richards had a knack for voicing stiff foreign ladies rather well. (judging by the various wonderful occasions in which she dubbed Cyd Charisse’s singing at MGM)., while Vera Ellen’s dancing needs little describing. Initially I felt that Kate Nelson seemed a bit awkward by comparison, her dancing not as graceful and she was very stiff and stilted as the Princess. But gradually I warmed to her performance. During It’s A Lovely Day Today her performance seemed to step up a few notches, which helped considerably. Perhaps in the end the standard of her education won through. For overall I enjoyed her performance. Her singing, dancing and acting were all ultimately entirely satisfactory.
As Cosmo Constantine Gido Schmanski turns out one of the best performances of the evening. His portrayal of the character is different to that of George Sanders, but he makes the role is own, and soon wins the audience’s sympathy. He started his career as a dancer, a serious dancer, but perhaps like Robert Helpmann before him, he proves he can sing and act jolly well. Admittedly there were moments when I found myself thinking “oh wouldn’t the Lost Musicals’ answer to Erik Rhodes have done this well”. That however is simply a comment on the part, rather than Gido Schmanski’s performance, which was more than satisfactory.
As Kenneth Gibson, Chris Love has the unenviable task of following in the footsteps of not only Russell Nype (in the stage version), but Donald O’Connor in that perfect film. He rises admirably to the challenge. The stage dialogue and plot involving his character are actually rather more plausible than the film version, and thankfully he doesn’t do a drunk act. With the notable exception of some excellent performances during Oom Pah Pah in the current West End production of Oliver!, I’m not usually too keen on stage drunk acts. By far the best thing about Chris Love’s performance however is his dancing. Shades or Donald O’Connor or Fred Astaire, similar to Tim Flavin. Yet strangely judging by his rather short resume he has never appeared in the West End, he jolly well ought to be tap dancing in a big West End show, he’s good.
The hardest job of all goes to our leading lady, Beverly Klein. Of all the roles Ethel Merman originated on Broadway this one is perhaps the most impossible for any actress to make their own. Not only did Merman play the role on stage, she also played in on film (a film that despite a few minor plot differences does stick fairly closely to the stage version, and unlike Anything Goes, very definitely focuses on it’s leading lady). Thus she set a standard for this role, and standard which it is very very hard to live up to. I think there are probably very few actresses indeed who could truly make this part their own. Beverly Klein makes a brave attempt. She is a sensible singer-actress, she does not try to do impossible imitations. She does her best to sing the songs and act the role in the way that best suits her own talents, and yet at the same time, in style of delivery there are moments where she seems to nod to the original. She acts the part with warmth, delivers her lines like she means them, and sings the classic songs reasonably. Certainly there are plenty of singer-actresses who I feel sure would be so ill suited to this legendary role I wouldn’t even think of going to see them try. Ruthie Henshall, Jessica Martin, Julia McKenzie, Elaine Paige, Angela Richards and Sally Ann Triplett for example are all well and good in some roles, but I really wouldn’t want to see them tackle this one. By contrast Beverly Klein was exactly what I expected she would be. While I felt she was not perfect casting, she nevertheless did her best by it, played it satisfactorily, and never ruined any of it. Yes there were many moments were I felt the character could have benefited from more energy, more chutzpah, a bit of vivacious zest. Also her singing was a bit underpowered, after all this role was written for “The Mighty Merman”. I guess in a way I have been a bit spoilt. The film after all is perfect casting. In addition although the character of Mrs Sally Adams was loosely based on Perle Mesta, as a character in a stage musical she also has strong similarities to Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes and Nails O’Reilly Duquesne in Red Hot And Blue (both those musicals having the same bookwriters as this one); and therein lies the problem. I have seen Kim Criswell do Sally Adams for an abridged radio broadcast of Call Me Madam, and also play Reno Sweeney brilliantly at Grange Park Opera. Furthermore fifteen years ago, I had the delightful pleasure of witnessing the extremely vivacious Louise Gold’s stunning performance as Nails O’Duquesne in a Discovering Lost Musicals production. Trying to follow Merman’s film performance is hard enough, but with people like Ms Criswell and Ms Gold (who both starred as Reno Sweeney of Studio cast recordings of Anything Goes) active in musical theatre, well that just makes it even harder. Ultimately although I felt Beverley Klein did very well, and is a good steady singer-actress, who can be trusted to play a tricky (impossible to follow) sort of role decently (without ruining it), but she doesn’t quite set the stage alight, I’m not sure that she really has the extra bit of magic that makes a truly outstanding lead in a show, though she proved that she can carry a show when required to do so. This perception is probably not helped by the fact that within the past two months I have had the pleasure of seeing two shows whose leads truly did have the most amazing charisma, that really will set the stage alight, and carry the show on the strength of their stage presence alone, namely: Louise Plowright in Okalahoma! and Max Gold in Johnny Johnson. Coming so hot on the heels of those two, well almost any show and lead was bound to be a bit of a come down. That said, given that the stage production does have some differences to the film, and I am glad to have seen this particular production of it.